Soul of the corporation, scourge of the corporation

Mary_minnick I was at IDEO a couple of months ago.  They were kind enough to ask me to come speak at one of their Friday "Know Hows."  A guy called Scott Underwood gave me a quick tour, and about 10 minutes in, I thought to myself, "this guy is really good at this."  Later, several IDEOers made a point to ask if I’d "met Scott," and half way through dinner, when Scott was talking about something, Tom Kelley leaned over and said, with real affection, "this is classic Scott."

I remember meeting someone like this at the Harvard Business School. There was a junior member of faculty who everyone loved.  He was good at some of the things you are supposed to be good at HBS, and he was smart as can be.  But none of this seemed to explain why he, like Scott, was a minor celebrity in the organization. 

Neither of these guys was remarkable for their power, accomplishments, or any specialized body of knowledge.  Both were likable, but neither of them was charismatic.  No, if these guys had celebrity, I think it was because they were both seen to be exemplars of the spirit of the corporation.  In fact, the phrase that started to role around in my head was, perhaps too melodramatically, "soul of the corporation." 

Compare these two guys to another species of corporate life, the sacrificial change agent.  I haven’t met anyone like this in the flesh, so I am now pretty working from the business press.  A.G. Lafley is the CEO of P&G and if there is a success story in marketing right now this guy is  definitively it.  Lafley is nothing short of a sensation.  But it’s hard not to wonder about the significance of his predecessor, Durk I. Jager. 

To judge from the journalistic treatments, Jager chose to drag P&G kicking and dreaming into the future.  He upset a great many people, but in the process he did A.G. Lafley an immense favor.  Whatever AG did to reform the corporation,and these reforms have been radical and continuous, he was going to look like a paragon of consideration by comparison.  It is even possible that Jager saw his role as deliberately sacrificial.  He knew he was going to pay for this reforms, and he did them anyway.

Mary Minnick is the outgoing CMO at the Coca-Cola Company.  To judge from the press reports, it sounds as if she might belong to this particular category of change agent.  Here’s what she had to say this week in the Financial Times. 

Change is uncomfortable, just as a human characteristic and for organisations as a whole. It’s challenging, it’s complicated, and it doesn’t always make people comfortable. 

Minnick pursued change anyhow.  As she told shareholders.  "I tend to be quite discontented in general.  It will never be fast enough or soon enough or good enough."

And we may judge how far she was prepared to transform the Coke paradigm, when she says,

All the work we did suggested that consumers are using beverages in dramatically different ways, ranging from disease prevention, to hydration, to weight reduction, to relaxation, to relieving stress and to fortification of nutrition. 

Change agents of this kind don’t stay for very long.  Ms. Minnick lasted 20 months.  But then that is perhaps the very nature of their contribution to the corporation.  They so upset the apple cart, they can’t stay for very long. 

What’s weird is that the new corporation is going to need both of these kinds of people.  As things speed up, as the corporation grows cloudier, both continuity and discontinuity are called for in equal measure.  As things speed up, as change grows more intense, it is really hard sometimes to remember what the corporation stands for.  How useful to have a "soul of the corporation" person around to remind us.  But then there will be moments when the corporation finds itself so far behind the curve that something revolutionary is called for.  Bring in the revolutionary. (And make sure the pay package is rich, because they won’t be here for long.) 

Now do these two creatures coexist?  Well, you’ve got me.  But then almost everything in the coming corporation is a bit of a mystery at the moment.   


Anonymous.  2006.  Queen of Pop.  BusinessWeek.  August 7, 2006. here.

Markels, Alex.  2006.  Turning the Tide at P&G.  U.S. News. October 22, 2006.  here.

Willman, John.  2007.  Soft drink survivor with no bitter aftertaste.  Financial Times.  February 26, 2007.  p. 10. 

6 thoughts on “Soul of the corporation, scourge of the corporation

  1. Brian

    He’s Scott Underwood…not UnderWORLD.

    I worked at IDEO with Scott when he was the head of Tech Support in Palo Alto and I was the tech support guy here in Boston.

    Even though Scott is not an engineer or a designer, he personifies the IDEO identity so thoroughly that it is easy to understand why he is so popular within the company. He’s creative, intelligent, autodidactic, and multi-talented, but his role within the company has always been as part of the support structure, not as one of the design geniuses.

    Not to speak ill of IDEO, since I enjoyed my time there, but IDEO likes to promote a somewhat fantastical version of themselves as a company full of Scott Underwoods at every level and in every role. In reality, Scott is a very unique person (whom I personally admire), and while there are many unique talents within the company, the truth falls far short of this image.

  2. Steve

    Grant: your referencing the “sacrificial change agent” who, by definition, can’t stay long (sacrifices apparently wait for no man), strikes a chord with me, having been painfully close to this role a bit too often in my career.

    If I can go back to Robert Ardrey, we might wonder if the modern corporation is a snap shot microcosm of territory defence — in this case, the protection of one’s individual political turf taking precedence over doing what may be best for the troup but sub-optimal for the “alpha manager”.

    “Souls of the Corporation” threaten no one. They’re friendly, helpful, and inert. “Change Agents”, by definition, threaten everyone — even though they often point out the way by their self-destruction.

    Does this sound right to you?

  3. jens

    very sympathetic to your confession, steve.
    but the ‘sacrificial change agent’ is only ‘sacrificial’ when he follows his very own cause – when he is a preacher of a very personal song… in other words: when he is not fundamentally backed up by the big boss. – something like this happened to me when i accepted a job as cmo of a considerably big company in germany which had been stuck in quite a tricky position for some time. the intellectual and strategic challenge was a piece of cake really… – turned out that the rest was not. – especially not when you have nobody on your side – and also your boss can’t quite remember why he hired you in the first place.

    it was a crisp and sunny january day when the ceo told me that i was fired (he said it slightly differently). walking down the hallways i felt like robin williams in “dead poets society” when people were wishing me farewell and telling me that “nobody before had touched the corporation as deep and as profoundly in such a short time. – a short time indeed it was: one week short of three month in fact.

  4. Adam Richardson

    I would put Carly Fiorina into this category of sacrificial change agent too. Saw that change had to happen, pissed a lot of people off, got fired. I think if you talk with people at HP they for the most part will recognize that change needed to happen at the company, but many of them didn’t like the style in which it was carried out under Fiorina. Hurd is ushering in change in his own way, it remains to be seen whether he will get the same antibody treatment as Fiorina. And like the CMO of Coke, he has a honeymoon period just for not being Fiorina.

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